Title: The Magnolia Sword: A Ballad of Mulan
Author: Sherry Thomas
Genre: Historical Fiction
Hua Mulan has spent all of her life training for one purpose: to defeat in duel the heir of the Peng family and reunite two priceless swords, as well as avenging his father who was paralysed in the previous duel between the two families.
But a messenger from the emperor comes calling for recruits, and with no one in her family able to answer the call, Mulan dresses as a man and journeys to the front with a group of fresh recruits. Thanks to her martial arts training, she is soon chosen to be part of an elite group under the command of the princeling. They will travel beyond the great wall of China to uncover the Rouran clans’ plans of conquest, while unmasking a dangerous conspiracy in the capital and uncovering secrets that will shake Mulan’s understanding of her past.
A closer look
This is a YA retelling of a Chinese classic, the Ballad of Mulan. While I’m pretty well acquainted with the Disney version, I have sadly never read the original story; and having an uncertain relationship with retellings in general, I went into this with low expectations in order to avoid disappointment. I shouldn’t have worried.
The story begins with Mulan facing her adversary. The two families have a tradition of holding a duel every generation, in order to decide which of them will have custody of the two heirloom swords until the next duel. The last one ended in a draw, and so each family has kept one of the swords. Now the new duel draws near, and Mulan and her adversary have already met in secret a couple of times to spar in preparation.
I don’t know if this duel is part of the original story – I don’t believe so, to be honest, and am too lazy to find out – but it provides an explanation for Mulan’s ability later on and it’s also a big part of what makes her who she is. She has spent her whole life training under her father stern eyes for just this reason, hiding under her dead twin brother’s identity to pass off as a man every time she leaves the house.
We spend little time with her family, and soon enough we are swept away to the recruiting and then the front. Mulan is very analytic of the situation; she knows it’s dangerous for her to go, but she understands that no one else in her family is able to fight and is ready to take up the responsibility in order to protect them. She’s also afraid, despite being a proficient martial artist, and I appreciated the fact that she was honest about it and actively tried to put herself in the safest position available.
I also enjoyed her relationship with the other people in the scouting team and especially the princeling. It was particularly cute to see how they interacted with each other and how their relationship changed during their mission. The truth about the princeling’s identity is not really a big shock, but it leads to Mulan questioning her prejudices and beliefs about the kingdom and the people that inhabit it. It also brings to light some information about the past that pushes her to reconsider the things she knows, the reason why she’s been training for so long and, in general, who she really is and what she wants.
If I had a complaint – and I always do, somehow – I would say that everything was really fast. I don’t know if it’s because the book is not that long, or if it was the style in which it was written, but I felt like at times things were happening very quickly. I also would have liked to see the relationship between the group a little more. The characters all have something to distinguish them from one another, but at the same time they don’t feel as fully developed as they could be.
I did like the story overall, and I especially appreciated the fact that the love story was not overpowering – something that happens really often, especially in YA, and more often than not hinders the story instead of adding something. The resolution also put a smile on my face.
The author did a lot of research about the story and the historical period as well, and it shows in the details, especially when speaking about clothes, food, and travel. The language used by the characters sounds quite modern by comparison, but that didn’t bother me that much to be honest. Fighting scenes were surprisingly scarce, considering the story is set in the midst of a war and a duel is introduced literally in the first page. Which is not exactly a negative point, since I tend to get confused by long battle scenes, but in a story centred about war I would have expected a little more action on that front.
I went in not knowing what to expect; I knew it was a YA Mulan retelling and I even thought there might be magical elements (a notion I have no idea where I got, since this book is clearly rooted in reality), and I was wary of it. It ended up being a fast, super-enjoyable story about a girl dressing up as a boy to protect her family and ultimately her country, about getting over prejudice, accepting oneself, understanding the importance of compromise, honesty and family.
I really enjoyed the experience, even though I’m not usually the biggest fan of YA books, and I’m curious to read more by this author in the future.